The Richmond History Podcast

Friday, August 26, 2011

Humans are not so humane

I came across something that shook me the other day that makes Mike Vic and his dog fighting exploits sound sweet.  When that all went down I was thinking that is some kind of backwoods activity that is a hang over from the dark ages or Roman times.  Our society is So fisticated there is no way we have accepeted public crulty to animals for thousands of years right?  Wrong.  While rereading a Virginus Dabny's Richmond: The Story of a City, I saw something that I missed the first time.  In what sounds like a delightful place Haymarket Gardens near the river between 6th & 8th St, where there was "room for great variety of attrations and amusments", as Dadney puts it, one of which is a sideshow by Benjamin Healy of the new gas illumination( (that sounds interesting), another was Bear Baiting (Wait...what the hell?)  Yes the timeless passtime of digging a pit, tying a bear to a pole in the middle gathering people around outside and letting "bull" dogs in to rip the bear to shreds.  Sounds nice... This is the early to mid 1800's.  I wish that I could say this "sport" was isolated to one place but Jennie Holliman explains in American Sports, 1785-1835, that "in 1819, a grand battle took place in the yard of the Eagle Hotel, Richmond, VA, between a buffalo and eight or ten of the best bull dogs that could be procured in the city".  By "best" I assume is meant the "most deadly".  As a Richmonder I feel a little better when she says "from Boston to New Oleans it was practiced".  Did they hand out plastic covers like at a Galigar Concert? Really what is the differance between alittle bear flesh and chunks of watermellon?  This seems to be a great tradition we recieved from the British.  Holliman says it was "the English suported the sport in England as a sort of national institutuion".
Baiting must go back a ways because the The Oxford Journal from Dec 1958 explains how one bear named Sackerson, was so famous for killing bull dogs, or, atleast not letting the bull dogs kill him that he got a shout out from Shakedpeare in The Merry Wives of Winsor.  I assume the merry part refers to something else.
It is my current realization that this ever went on that makes me feel strange.  I've had more time to deal with cockfights, dogfights, and oh yea the big inhuman embarrassment of the 19th century, human slavery.
I don't know why I am so surprised, after Mr. Vick and the media coverage of dog fights after his arrest but, history really does replay today!  In Aug. 2010 The Humane Society documented Bear Baiting going on in South Carolina.  Well not exactly, they call it "bear baying".  Totally different, except for chaining a bear to a post and then watching dogs rip it to shreds.  They do have some compassion though.  Not for the bear, but one thing they did that I have found no evidence of in the past is they declawed and detoothed the bear... we don't want the dogs getting hurt do we?
Ethel Smith (, says that even though dog fighting is illegal the same can not be said for bears.  The South Carolina Department of Natural Resources at least until Aug of 22010 issued permits for the possession of bears for bear baying. (

If you want to know how to make this history go to the Humane Society page below, and if you are looking to loose faith in Modern humans completely you may watch the videos below at the links below...I recomend you don't.

Oh, anonther delightful thing I found while researching this topic is the origins of the American Pitbull Terrier.  I am not going to cite anyone because no one convinved me which of the 2 options were true.  It seems for sure pitbulls were bred either for bearbaiting or they were bred after bearbaiting fell out of favor because they were better at killing other dogs.  What a sweet history.


  1. Jeff, I think that another important question is, 'Was activities such as bear-baiting even frowned upon back then?' From what I understand, it was a common activity that most people didn't even consider cruel.

    Charles Dickens visited Richmond during his North America tour of 1842, and recalled during an agricultural exhibition: "The city.. was deeply stirred by the excitement of the fair, the shows, the prize vegetables, the trotting matches, the wonderful singing mouse, and the bear-baiting." So, this sort of activity was among fair amusements with very little objections.

    In fact, this English tradition goes back even further (as you mentioned) and an interesting historical co-incidence was a welcoming reception Elizabeth I (later queen and namesake of the State of Va.) threw for her sister, Mary Boleyn in 1557. Where the morning and evening entertainment consisted of bear baiting and a concert respectively. For her hospitality, Mary later threw her a musical concert in Richmond.. England that is.

    My perception is that different social views were vastly different than they are today. Progress really lies in what we want to consider as being acceptable today (unlike Mike Vic). Which you bring out in this first post, bravo!

    1. There was a time when tying bears to a post in a pit was good fun when dogs pit them to death, and when slavery was ok, and when bathing was thought to be unhealthy. The question is what do we do everyday that will be terrible when the future generations look back?